How a winter in the Californian gold rush began Mark Twain's career

At first glance, you might think that Angels Camp, a small town in the green foothills of the Sierra Nevada, is famous for its frogs.

The sidewalks of the former gold mining town are decorated with frog plaques. The Angels Camp Museum sells frog baseball caps and frog-shaped cookie cutters. A billboard reads “Frogtown, USA.”

But why is there so much love for frogs in Angels Camp? Because of Mark Twain and his successful story “The Famous Leaping Frog of Calaveras County,” which was originally published in 1865. Legend has it that Twain – whose real name was Samuel Clemens – first heard the story in a tavern in Angels Camp.

By the winter of 1864, Clemens was in trouble. After trying his hand as a steamboat pilot, miner, and mill worker, Clemens found work as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, but lost his job and found himself heavily in debt.

Shortly after his 29th birthday, in December 1864, he left town to live with some miners in a cabin in Tuolumne County, about 140 miles east of San Francisco. There, at a place called Jackass Hill, he began to recover, reading literature by the fire in the one-room cabin and listening to his friends tell funny stories, as local historian James Fletcher wrote in his book “Mark Twain's 88 Days of the Gold Rush.”

Clemens began keeping a notebook in which he recorded anecdotes and observations that would “feed his literary art for the rest of his life,” Fletcher writes. “Sam spent only three months at Jackass Hill before returning to San Francisco, but those months changed the young writer's life.”

According to the story, in January 1865, Clemens and his friends were in the mining town of Angels Camp, about 10 miles north of Jackass Hill, when they heard a bartender at the Angels Hotel tell a strange and silly story about a frog jumping contest.

In the spring, Clemens returned to San Francisco and began writing humorous essays for local publications, which soon became popular. He expanded the frog story into a short story, originally called “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” which was published in the New York Saturday Press under the pseudonym Mark Twain and reprinted in newspapers across the country, bringing the young writer national success.

I recently visited Angels Camp, a charming community of 3,500 that hosts a frog jumping festival each May and has a museum with an exhibit about Mark Twain's experiences in the Gold Country. Both the downtown Angels Hotel and a replica of the cabin on Jackass Hill (about a 10-minute drive south, on a peaceful tree-covered peak) are historic California landmarks known for their role in launching the career of one of America's most famous writers.

“I wrote the story in my notebook that day, and would have been glad to get $10 or $15 for it — so blind was I,” Clemens wrote years later in a letter to one of his friends from Jackass Hill, as quoted in “Mark Twain and the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by George Williams III. “I published that story, and it became widely known in America, India, China, and England — and the reputation it brought me has since brought me thousands and thousands of dollars.”

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